Dear _ ,

I find that as soon as I begin to write as if in a letter, I write differently. As if the letter might reach someone, maybe you. Today, I am wondering what it is like to have a day suitable for a novel. I have not written for more than two months now and still find no particular inclination to write.

I assumed that the romance of the place, the birds, the trees, the lack of internet even would drive me to write. I imagined writing passionate letters to you, continuing half-written stories and hoping that this page would be filled with a long list of vignettes from the extraordinary things that happen here everyday in the nothingness. I imagined I would read such excellent novels that they would serve as my muse even if I were shut up inside a tiny box-like room. I imagined that if I were present again in the same environment that produced writing that has lasted more than a year, I would write again- afresh, anew. The Usha ceiling fan runs well, still. The house is still as decapitated as before- leaky roof, wet walls, lights that don’t work, doors termite-ridden and littered with the kind that creeps and crawls let in everyday through little holes in mosquito meshes and little cracks in the walls. I take bath regularly with frogs and a lizard or two. You have to keep an eye on them, it’s a staring contest until one falls on your head and you vigorously shake it off. They splat, don’t fall, have you noticed?

I have seen things here that I have never before experienced in life, yet I feel unable to write. One could say that I have been weary by the end of everyday after having been out in the humidity. My fingers and toes swell up to little bulbs, causing my little toe much pain as it presses against my shoes. When I return at night, I am exhausted but also filled with the fullness of the day. Then why can’t I write? Where do the words go? There are plenty little spaces for them to slip through and into the forest. Is that what happens? It’s possible. Because it’s just as full of sound as always, the trees stay quiet only until they begin long periods of music. The birds sound cacophonous as if something has happened but they are the only thing that is happening. Yet, I have nothing poignant to say about them.

I’m quite melancholic about how unable I feel to write. And then I think of how beautifully you write and feel a touch of self-pity. There are no raw mangoes on the tree outside even though the branch hangs low. The smell of mangoes and the rain is distinctly missing- these could all be reasons for the lack of words. As for the reading I hoped to do, I have been reading some and even though I am not struck by anyone’s writing as such it captivates me so. That’s where I found this little trinket to begin the letter, what does it mean to have a day suitable for a novel? Is it filled with nothingness or is it filled with events?

The river, by the way is just as exquisite.

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the scent of death

 

Flora_Sinensis_-_Sum_Xu_AND_Tortoise

 

The scent of death is warm, moist, and always slightly crumpled
Bundled up in fists like loose earth, shredded like petals of rose
It is the smell of marigolds that accidentally burned in the pyre
And violets that shriveled on tombstones

It is that spectral whisper you catch, amidst the chaos of the ritual
Or a moment you take to taste her breath while in throes of passion
It is restless like a flock of birds fluttering their wings in alien lands
It is also familiar, like the morning newspaper, at the end of the day

It moves slowly and carefully, like the hands of a scavenger
hunting for bones, in the ashy aftermath of sacred fire
Or, it can be swift and jarring – intrusive – like memories
of dull dinners, tasteless sex, and imminent partings

Gloriously romantic, like romping lovers
touched by a hint of melancholy
under the winter sun
next to the creek

Or, it can come
like an even feeling
on a night of blue
nothingness

Welling up in your shimmering eyes,
it flows down the length of my back
I taste it between your thighs
And always find it smeared
on your limitless lips

The scent of death is not climatic
It is not an interval either
It simmers like longing
stretching its limbs
forever in ecstasy
like a poem
interrupted

आकाश के टुकड़े नहीं होते
हर टुकड़े का अपना आकाश होता है
ननिहाल के छज्जे से आकाश को देखो
नानी का सूती आँचल नज़र आता है

 

 

You, are winter

Kahlil Gibran_Love_Winter

The Spring is deceptive – a fleeting orchestra of smells and sights. You can have it all, it says, and you recklessly go around plucking until the sun burns everything down. Summers irritate me. They are harsh and sweaty and yet, for some reason unbearably bright and cheerful. You try to laugh around, while an itch creeps up the unreachable middle of your back. Rains are humbling – they are not content with looking at you from far away. The drizzles invite you, and the thunders excite you. The rain washes all the plastic colours away and paints the landscape afresh. The destruction is romantic, the creation passionate. Rains teach you consequence. You can run naked in the fury of the season and return shivering – cold to your bones. The autumn nurses your heart. Separation is inevitable, it says. That when you fall, you fly. You are like the tree trunk – empty and naked, grateful for the occasional, distant warmth of the sun. Like the leaves, you are free and vulnerable to the winds. You feel coarse and dry, and yet, you know that it is the only way to break down. You know that no amount of trampling can destroy you completely. You can be broken down to bits as minute as particles of dust. And that like dust you can move slowly, and calmly and settle down. You move and you settle down, you settle down and you move. Autumn is not a season of many colours. It is a season of many shades of a single colour. In the several hundered shades of ochre, I look for my own loneliness.

Then winter comes, and says – you have been obsessing about the wrong thing. Loneliness is a futile figment to chase. For once, try solitude. Like your body, your solitude is your own. The warmth two bodies is never the same and every body nurtures a hundered different currents of heat. You touch the tips of your toes and are startled by their coldness. You reach for the gaps between them and find little pockets of warmth. Slowly, winter makes you map the temperature of your entire body – every curve a different degree. When two bodies meet in winters, they are not shocked at how differently they feel. Every touch is a recognition of your own patterns. Winter says, intimacies are for sharing, not devouring. You cannot taste without being tasted. You cannot consume without being consumed. You cannot speak without listening. Over the course of night, each body will go through its own trembles and its own silences. And the two pairs of feet will find their own corners under the blanket of love.

You, my love, are winter.

 

 

*painting: Kahlil Gibran

 

 

bluest eye or the night of many

visage

There are lights on either side of the wall. One beaded along a string, the other lone and sharp. There’s a fan between both, one that makes the sound that puts me to sleep. It has not managed to do so successfully today. There’s a mirror in front of me and behind me. They are placed so they do not reflect each other. When I wake up, I can tilt my head a little to the left to see myself in the mirror. It usually prompts me to get out of bed and head to the little bathroom the size of a closet. The little mirror in the little bathroom is clear. I look at my face more closely. If I wake up too early or sleep too much there are little bags under my eyes. If I smile they make my eyes disappear into a soft cushioned couch of flesh. There are deep wide pores on either side of my nose, a nose that rises high and spreads wide separating my face in uneven halves.

The bed is wide and leaves only a two inch gap between both walls if I had to position it in the centre. I do not. I am afraid I will fall over. Now I only fall over one side. Besides ,the cold of the wall also helps putting me to sleep. I raise both feet high up till it touches the string lights. Today it is much too cold to do so. Underneath my bed is a long drawer. I have never seen its ends. I see its beginnings frequently. For nights that are long, which they usually are, the drawer is filled with wrappers and clear plastic boxes, brightly coloured packets and rubber bands from stale chips. There’s never anything there. But the drawer is opened frequently at nights.
The phone rests underneath a pillow. A few dozen times at night, I bring it out and place it on my side. Each time I change my side, the phone shifts position too. No one calls. But just in case. Sometimes there’s a blue light and I wake up immediately. It’s nothing. My phone does that sometimes.
The string light has been switched on to trick me into believing I’m in the kind of room and I am the kind of person who will now sleep restfully. Still, I do not sleep. I switch on the light in the bathroom. At night, the light is clearer above the mirror. I look much the same. I come up with a dream, it’s no good. I come up with the worst things, I kill off most of my family and go through entire funerals. Sometimes if it’s someone I like that I kill, I cry, and that puts me to sleep. But by now everyone’s had a few turns, so there’s little novelty to provoke tears.
I imagine my hair in tight curls. I imagine I have to count all the curls to make sure it stays the same way. The curls are sheep and the sheep are curls. One jumps over the wall. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then another. Beloved. It’s the bluest eye, it’s the bluest eye. Then another. Then another.

peacockhen

In 2013 things were different from what it would be in 2014, but this I did not know in 2013, which was also a year of discoveries. I discovered that she did not wear coloured bras, only white and black and one beige. The black itself made her feel scandalous she said, but she wore it as a secret and hid it in the bottom of her shelf- she did not say from whom she kept this a secret. I also discovered that she said the word ‘bra’ in a whisper as if the bra kept falling out of the sentence. I said I only wore black bras. This, against the wisdom of my mother who bought me these bras insisting that I buy another colour because ‘everyone has black bras, they’ll steal yours’. In 2013 I also made another bold decision, to buy black satin underwear. It looked like nothing and felt silken and slippery. It was this new purchase that had in the first place started the conversation of the whispered black bra.

It was also the same year that we decided to buy our bras ourselves, coloured ones even. Of course we never did.
Later in 2016 when I would first experience not wearing a bra, I will think of what a painful excursion it would have been to buy bras in whispers. In this same year I first saw pasties and knew it wouldn’t warrant even a whisper, but stark disapproval of its very existence! Even in beige.
 It was during the second half of 2013 that a cow butted me from behind, causing me to roll over onto the road and lie for a few minutes in utter disbelief. The blunt horn had also torn into my favourite top, leaving a square of cloth limply hanging from the rest of the fabric. I remember limping back home ears burning, wondering whether she could see my blue bra from the little torn window on my back. I decided later that she would take time, if ever, to find the right pitch and tone for a blue bra.
It was the same year she had trouble breathing. In between deep raspy breaths, she sat at the edge of the bed telling me she went shopping with her sister. Blue bra, raspy breath.
Meanwhile I got my torn top sown, bright pink bordered square on the bright green fabric. In 2015, when my blue bra got stolen and reappeared on my next door neighbour’s clothesline I would wear my bright green top.
In 2014, I discovered through sheer accident that she was seeing someone. Through 2014 and 2015 there would be no conversation in whispers or otherwise, until the day my blue bra disappeared.
I discovered that year that she no longer whispered the word bra, but laughed and laughed about a cow having butted me two years ago.

ghosts for the haunting and the Prologue(2)

How beautiful it is to look at, never have I seen or heard anything like it- Nalacharitam, Unnayi Warrier

 

krishna gopikas

***

Nila looks her best at  night. She is resplendent in the rains, full and flowing. The lazy river is antithetical to the typical Keralite who wakes up at the crack of dawn and shuts shop at sunset.  Nila belongs to the night, ripples of moonlight gleaming on her silvery waters. Nila likes being not merely the protagonist, but the solitary character to her own story. It is from her story that we borrow the beginnings to the story of Kathakali. It is on her banks that Kerala Kalamandalam, the premier institution of Kathakali was founded almost a century ago. It is on her banks that my father bought his first house in Kerala.

Painkulam is a small village in Shornur, the house we bought is part of someone’s ancestral house. It is ever so slightly odd to live in someone’s ancestral house, there’s no telling how many generations have grown up here. The newly painted walls, the tiled floors, the Usha ceiling fan, all hide layers of musty old stories. It’s usually in the still of the night or during a power cut in the monsoon that my little box-like room becomes claustrophobic with someone else’s ghosts. My father tells me that it is the ancestral house of a kathakali artist. A chutti artist, a glorified version of the regular makeup-artist. The man currently lives in America. As most stories are, his was also a love story. He fell in love with an American woman who came to learn Kathakali and went back with her to the U.S. Today he’s exported the Kathakali makeup tradition to the U.S and given it new forms and a new name and seems to be doing pretty well with some highly acclaimed art exhibitions. My father claims that it is the ghosts he’s left behind that have pushed me into kathakali. Perhaps it’s just that. The proximity to the Kalamandalam, an old veshakaran’s ghost, or simply a renewed interest in theatre. But a little more digging into why kathakali came back into my life, reveals more.

As a child I must have been terrified of Poothana. In full costume, she was even more of a demoness than I had imagined when I read the stories. That image of Poothana trying to kill the baby, the god I worshipped, stuck in my mind as the all-encompassing figure of evil. Years later when I started researching Hindu mythology and its many manifestations in India, Poothana came back to me. She had haunted me as a demoness when I was a child, but now she haunted me in her vesham as the noble woman. I read the story again, and this time as a Kathakali padam. I went back and looked for the demons and the gods in Kathakali, in an effort to find the heroes and villains of my own story. I was no longer a child who believed in the good of the gods, but I was more importantly not the child who believed in the evil of the demons. Kathakali became a synecdoche for the various understandings and manifestations of caste in Kerala.

excerpt from Vidooshakan- the Harlequin.

Find part(1) here

the night of the chocolate cake and Marius’ love and Marius’ pity

akbarpadamsee-lg
Akbar Padamsee, ‘Christ’

Late last night, I baked a cake. It was well after they had stopped drilling a hole to put up the Ravi Varma painting in the house next door.  New neighbours, old walls. The dead cat had been removed by someone from the  balcony. The remains of food from the table had been cleaned, my guest was an older man. The urge to have the chocolate cake, was not so much as to have it as to bake it. I sieved the flour while I listened to the television I leave on all night, when alone in the house. The cocoa dust in the flour mixed poorly, too dry, too lumpy. The oil made it silken, the sugar made it sweet and then the perfume of the vanilla. It was a note of that, the essence of vanilla that made me turn off the television. The music rang sharply, and I sighed in relief.

The sound of the microwave, dully whirring, the cake moving in slow circles of precise measures would take fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes of a few pages from a novel, the beginnings of a film, one very short short story, one very long dream. My options were as few as many. I could see the cake through the yellow inside, like the perfect sun set that no would wax eloquent about. Marius and Lenia made my cake burn slightly on the bottom, leaving the centre still soft to the touch.

Marius: Listen Lenia, I shall explain-
Not for love of you for you are a harlot,
Even a witty harlot, but I must
Remove this heat of the sun
Of the City. Sometimes my thoughts
Take fire and as in verse
The lines turn forth. Listen then, Lenia
My beloved of the moment, and
Take your fingers away from my pouch,
For in the moment of relief I feel cool,
And your hand is irritating,
Not enkindling, and listen – 

Three walls there were
And a road along them-
A weary road along them.
The walls and vales
Were lined with women.
Below the cross was a man of thirty,
A wasted face of much beauty,
He was made indifferently well-
But nothing to me,
A lover of women.

I pitied this man,
Though my blood had beat faster,
For you know Lenia
That I am a lover of women, not men.

Thrice did he cry out
And into my belly came
The gear of desire
But I pitied the man;

Three hours passed-
In the vales below the women
Waited and watched him
And desired him
Till I too grew mad with fire.

Lenia: Did you not think of me?

Marius: They were as nothing, as the
Dust, and I was no longer
A lover of women.

Lenia: Look on me Marius, am I not desire?
My body is creamed and desireful.

Marius: The full lips of John
Stroked my body,
And the red nails of john
Did vile things and made
My body soft.

Lenia: Listen Marius, you are no poet.

Marius: I will not remember those things,
The white disease of the body of John.

 

The winds come down from
The mountains and Marius slept again
In the arms of a woman

 

Sultan Padamsee, ‘Epithalmium’ from Yaraana (read full poem)

 

I used oil instead of butter, granulated sugar instead of icing sugar and walnuts for crunch- broken down, right on the top.

At 2 in the morning, I covered the cake with a lid and placed it in the fridge. Uneaten and decorated.

15 August, 2017

rain in a drawer

12.36 AM

The cat tried to enter the house again. I had left the door ajar as usual and she popped out of darkness with her usual noiselessness (I should fix the bulb outside. This will be the fourth one in six months). Her movement is so noisy, but without a trace of sound. The first few steps are brisk as she hauls half her body in through the opening as thin and fat as her. Then the sudden halt, complete stillness save for the belly heaving under brown-white fur. Her ears sense that I am looking at her. With a quick jerk she turns left to find me in my usual spot. I look into her alert green eyes and wonder if she can see the dormant sleep in mine. I also wonder whether the rest of her body is as still as the present half pretends. I think especially of the tail. The inside of my right palm trembles invisibly as the image of a soft tail escaping my loose grip flashes for a second. Meanwhile, we are still looking at each other, testing waters. At times, without looking away, she takes a step forward and I lunge at her with a mock threat. Immediately the supple feline body folds back into darkness like half a wave. Tonight though, we were too tired for these games. She retreated gently into the night.

I wonder if she will come back tonight. Her surrenders are never final.

 

1.32 AM

I cannot sleep. I must remember this. Even if we spend every living moment of our days and nights together, doing the same things, together, we will never fall asleep, together, at the exact same moment. Even if we see the same dream, we’ll always be at different points in the story. I miss you terribly. The night is a torment. It’s raining. I don’t have to water plants tomorrow.

 

2.04 AM

The rain has turned furious and is crashing passionately against the corrugated plastic roof of the veranda. I have two towels. When it starts raining, I save only one of them. The rain is so thick tonight, that the one hanging nakedly on the wire, will remain soaked for a long time. Perhaps it will take till afternoon for it to dry. That is if the sun comes out. I hope it does. Hot water showers depend on it.

 

2.23 AM

All that sound and fury lasted for twenty puny minutes. I am sure the annoyingly slow but insistent puttering of droplets will last longer. I thought I’ll go through the text I have to teach this Friday. ‘Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea’ Shakespeare, Sonnet 65. The copy of the textbook they gave me, is in tatters.

(British Literature from Chaucer to the Present Day: Tomes and Tatters)

This copy once belonged to Amina Kauser. Her handwriting, like her name, carries a guileless elegance. Diligent notes fill the margins of practically every page. Around the dark black ink of printed words, Amina has practically re-written the whole text, with the softness of her pencil and plainness of her language.

In Sonnet 65, she has no patience for Shakespeare’s tentativeness  : “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea”. Her version on the side is more conclusive – everything can be destroyed by time beauty is temporary.

She complicates the last line though : “That in black ink my love may still shine bright” (Amina’s note: poem immortalised my friendship to my love (poem)).

 

3.00 AM

Tried sleeping but couldn’t. I felt like going through Amina’s book again, this time to find the more interesting notes – doodles, obscenities, declarations of love, nonsense conversations. There were none. As if Amina always knew that her book will end up in a library. As if she was performing a task, a duty of sanitizing Goldsmith’s dirty mind and containing Donne’s unruliness in her polite annotations. Or perhaps these words and thoughts are not her own, only the handwriting is. I did chance upon a few spellings that Amina is likely to have made up on her own – orthodocs, shasiated, disulutionment. And a question that I cannot decide is a doubt or a rhetoric – “Why is speech primary and writing secondary?”

The last page of the book with no printed word on it, Amina has used to write down all the phonetic symbols in order. Next to each symbol, she has recreated the sound in Urdu script. I think of that old hindi film song where the creepers on the wall, look like Urdu letters and words. This book now looks like an old house full of creepers crawling on walls.

I’ll perhaps listen to that song, while I try to sleep. The cat didn’t come back.

 

12.25 PM

I slept through the morning. When I woke up, a few minutes back, the day was so sunny that for a moment I forgot about the rains. It was raining in my dream though. There was rain, grass, mud and you. Our bodies were glistening and shivering, feet glazed with damp mud, hair as thick as rivers. We were wrapped in each other like coiling leafy creepers, and our hands moved with the elegance of verses written in longhand.

I woke up utterly disoriented. My whole body felt dry as a desert, inside and outside. A strange stiff shoulder and a blocked nose. I should not sleep naked in this weather.

 

1.38 PM

I haven’t opened the door since morning and all the windows are shut; the sun is warming their translucent glass panes. I slept through the breakfast hour, and now I am too lazy to cook. I plan an elaborate lunch for every holiday, but on the day itself, cooking seems like the worst idea. I’ll order something. Water is over too. I hope Murugan is not too lazy to bring it today.

 

2.00 PM

I feel like writing a poem to Amina Kauser. The title – to Amina Kauser is running in my head. I searched for her name on Facebook. The first profile that popped up, carried the picture of an anime girl with pink hair and doe eyes. The profile was empty save for a few pictures, with a string of comments by several men.

One of the pictures said – ‘Life is full of fake people! Trust no one’.  Amina in her book had put a curly bracket around the last two lines of “To His Coy Mistress” and added a note – seize the day. Another picture, another advice – ‘No Love, No Tension’.

The most recent picture was a still from a Hindi film – closeup of a teary eyed actress. The text on the picture said – ‘Don’t come visiting me after I DIE.  I needed you when I was ALIVE’.

 

3.50 PM

Murugan brought water. When I opened the door to collect the canister, he was grinning at me like an idiot. It took me a few seconds to realise that he was grinning because he thought I was an idiot. I had left the garbage bag out last night and by now it lay it tatters, its contents strewn around gloriously on the cement floor. “Abhi poora saaf karna padega” Murugan said, still grinning with his overly white teeth.

Bloody cat!

 

tHe SToryTEller and The IntRodUctioN

 

Like many people, my relationship with my father has been a complex one. Or atleast, for the sake of telling a story in a storylike way it is best to describe the relationship that way. One cannot deny its complexity, which I alone can verify in any case. The complexity of our relationship comes from both of us being objects of fascination to each other, often becoming caricatures of our roles as daughter and father. But not the good sort of caricatures of daughter and father but the poor sort, one always lacking in feature to be the good sort.
The good sort I believe comes to some use as reference in this particular tale of telling. The sort that has acquired the cringworthy comparison of Princess and Hero. Daughters as princesses and fathers as heroes of the daughters who are princesses. The reason I say this may be a useful point of reference is not to simply signify that my relationship with my father is far from any princess-hero rubbish, which it most certainly is- far from, that is. In an odd sense of term however this father of mine has played a particular kind of hero in many stories I have told. Mainly because it is the hero himself who has narrated many of the stories I simply repeat- and admittedly not relayed that they were all from another source. With this attribution, I must comment on how many times heroes narrate their own stories as heroes. One may say that this is a particular trait of heroism- to sing of one’s own valour, lest another may hesitate.
My father is a gifted storyteller. In that, I have secured my opening line to a story of my own telling which characterises him as the storyteller. This ploy has worked one too many times if I may say so myself. To what may face some derision if he were to be in the know, everytime I use this ploy it is to cast this father of mine as the unfortunate anti-hero to justify my politics. He becomes a villainous casteist, the ‘benevolent oppressor’, the misogynist, the patriarch, the manipulator and the easily manipulated. Now you see what I mean by not fitting into the princess caricature. At this point, my father who is a gifted storyteller would turn up his nose and tone filled with condescension point out to me that a story written in complicated sentences cannot be much of a story at all. Which mine are. His stories are long and end in other stories, but one may notice that his sentences are not long. They also have that particular feature of daddies who are heroes and are not, where the sentences trail when imbued with some emotion. To find completion would be horrendous and end in abrupt tellings of tales.
As the object of my stories, this father has played hero in all stories where I make a case against said heroism. I imagine that in all his long hours alone at home, he spins tales of me as the object of his stories as well. A princess who is anything but. He must in his long stories put me in various scenarios where I have not been a princess to illustrate how I must not be seen as one. In these tales I imagine, that as a gifted storyteller with an immense talent for description he will dress me in flowery pants and red lisptick. My red lipstick has become a source of some worry to him. The flowery pants were a mistake he made on my 10th birthday. In these tales he concocts while sitting on the dull grey sofa cover he chose, I must have long arguments about communism, economics and the best way to cut mangoes in the English he resents my command over.
The few times our eyes meet reluctantly over discussing steel plates at lunch, our individual tales of princesses and heroes collapse into the mindless mundane. My relationship with this father of mine is complex I imagine, because we are used to our distaste of each other in flowery pants and misogynist triumph.

*image from The Storyteller, Evan Turk